Stress in the workplace is nothing to boast about

Bullying not only destroys lives, but is also an incredibly inefficient way to run anything
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The Independent Online

Stress in the workplace hasn't been taken seriously until recently: if acknowledged at all, it has been treated as a badge of honour.

Stress in the workplace hasn't been taken seriously until recently: if acknowledged at all, it has been treated as a badge of honour. The more important a job is, it sometimes seems, the more stress is treated not just as an inevitable part of it, but something to boast about and even to increase artificially. Doctors, lawyers, City money-men, public administrators have all developed the habit of making their jobs more stressful and aggressive than necessary. It proves their worth, and the significance of their jobs.

It's very welcome, then, to hear that the Health and Safety Executive is taking steps to deal with stress, and has actually issued an order to West Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust to deal with the unacceptable levels of stress its staff work under. This is a brave attempt to stem the assumption that stress is something which can be allowed to rise unchecked, and also the culture which believes that stress is something to be proud of.

In the Dorset case, there is no suggestion that this stress is exacerbated by bullying, but that is frequently true once this macho assumption of necessary stress takes hold. It was cheering to see that, even in the City, this kind of atmosphere may no longer be accepted. Steven Horkulak's case for constructive dismissal against Cantor Fitzgerald revealed quite horrific bullying: his boss, Lee Amaitis, thought nothing of threatening to "tear his head off" and "break him in two". Mr Horkulak won nearly £1m for constructive dismissal: I wish I could believe that any change of culture is likely to follow.

Stress and bullying in the workplace happen all the time, and should not be tolerated at these high levels. My own experience of malevolent bullying convinces me that it not only destroys lives, but also amounts to an incredibly inefficient way to run anything.

Before I began to write full-time, I was employed in the public service. The department I worked in thought very highly of itself, and open snobbery was commonplace. I was startled, not long after starting work there, to hear an officer in the department remark of a candidate that he was "an old Etonian and a cricketing Blue - very much the right sort of chap" without any irony whatsoever.

That sort of thing was difficult enough to take, but the stress levels came largely from an absolute refusal of the management to admit that any kind of error could possibly be forgiven, or controlled. When some consultants employed to advise on working practices suggested the setting of performance targets, the management were unanimous: it was absurd to suggest any such thing, since any kind of failure was unacceptable. What this meant in practice was that a minor slip, as well as a significant error, was likely to result in a senior member of staff shouting in your face for five minutes.

Since the job involved, quite frequently, working until the small hours or even until dawn, without any acknowledgement of the exhaustion this might bring, errors did take place. That was bad enough, but in my case the stress was made worse by one of the clearest cases of bullying imaginable.

I don't want to go into the details, because even to think of it now makes me tremble with rage, and the main perpetrator is someone of whom, even now, I can't think without loathing and contempt. I had reached that point in life when one has published a novel or two, and from time to time the fact that I had been at a party was reported in a gossip column. That, apparently, was enough to spark off a spate of envious persecution: minor errors were turned into disciplinary matters, almost daily; I was asked over and over again whether I had thought about resigning; I was disciplined for failing to carry out tasks which had never been requested of me.

The result was that my work got worse and worse; my state of mind suffered; I would burst into tears for no reason; I developed mysterious fatigues and illnesses; I stopped sleeping. And in the end, I decided I would make these vile people sack me by writing a novel about them. The horrible irony was that, once I had been sacked, the matter got into the newspapers, and public attention was directed in a small way onto my former bosses. An emissary was sent from my former employer to ask me to stop talking about it on humanitarian grounds, since, I was told, "this sacking, it's been terribly traumatic for them; they're under an appalling amount of stress because of it." My response was, and remains, "I couldn't give a toss. I hope they drop dead."

If employers don't treat stress and bullying seriously, they deserve what they get: falling productivity, rising staff turnover, and a miserable, trustless body of staff. Now, I know what to do if anyone shouts at me: I shout back. But not everyone has learnt that lesson. It is the employers who are going to find it hardest to learn from the lessons the HSE is insisting on.

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